Winning is everything

Bill Clinton's impassioned paean to John Kerry caps a day of Democratic unity -- and fires up a party determined to wrest back the White House.

Published July 27, 2004 11:45PM (EDT)

The balloons are still hanging from the ceiling of the Fleet Center this morning. But there was a moment last night, just as Bill Clinton moved from his methodical explication of Republican policies to an emotional endorsement of Sen. John Kerry, just as the crowd began to think not only about the Clinton past but also about the Kerry future. There was a moment there when you thought surely that they'd crank back up "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)," that John Kerry would step onto the stage, and one-by-one Hillary and Chelsea and Al and Tipper and Teresa and maybe even John and Elizabeth Edwards might appear from the wings, and the balloons would drop and the scattershot images from the first day of John Kerry's convention -- or was it Bill Clinton's convention? -- would come together in one cohesive whole.

That moment never came, but day one of the Democratic National Convention was still a triumph of sorts for the Kerry campaign. The goal was to put a happy face on dissent, to get through a day without producing a snippet of video that the Republican National Committee or their friends at Fox could use to prove that angry anti-Bush hatred seethes right under the surface of the Democrats' extreme makeover. (The Heinz Kerry "Shove it" video notwithstanding.)

On that count -- and on many others -- the Kerry campaign succeeded. The Clintons endorsed Kerry without overshadowing him, Al Gore aired the Democrats' grievances without rancor, and Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich and their supporters made it clear that they would behave themselves -- and that they were, more or less, happy to do so.

Asked Monday night if the Kerry campaign had asked him to tone down his speech tonight, Dean told Salon: "They don't have to tell me. We've gotta win this thing."

That understanding underscored everything Monday night, from Gore's good-humored take on the 2000 election to Clinton's charitable assessment of Bush administration sincerity. "Democrats and Republicans have very different and honestly held ideas on the choices we should make rooted in fundamentally different views of how we should meet our common challenges at home and how we should play our role in the world," Clinton said in a nationally televised prime time speech in which he calmly laid out the differences between the priorities of the two major parties.

"They think the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, economic, and social views, leaving ordinary citizens to fend for themselves on matters like health care and retirement security," he said. "Since most Americans are not that far to the right, they have to portray us Democrats as unacceptable, lacking in strength and values. In other words, they need a divided America."

The convention is designed in large part to solve the problem of voters saying they don't know enough about Kerry, and Clinton presented an impassioned portrayal of Kerry -- perhaps only rivaled by that of Kerry running mate John Edwards. "Here is what I know about John Kerry," Clinton told the convention. "During the Vietnam War, many young men -- including the current president, the vice president and me -- could have gone to Vietnam but didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it too. Instead he said, send me."

But the delegates roared their most boisterous approval for Clinton's critiques of the Bush administration, executed with his trademark cataloguing of wonkish policy factoids. Only Clinton, really, could bring thousands to their feet pumping their fists at the mention of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And his speech was laced with jokes that left the delegates howling with approval, including one at the expense of the Bush tax cuts. "When I was in office, the Republicans were pretty mean to me," he said. "When I left and made money, I became part of the most important group in the world to them. At first I thought I should send them a thank you note -- until I realized they were sending you the bill."

It was, at times, vintage Clinton, at least vintage Bill Clinton. Hillary Rodham Clinton's performance was less interesting and less inspired, although that may have been more the fault of the schedule than the speaker. After initially leaving her off the convention list, the Kerry campaign plugged in Hillary to introduce Bill on a night that was also supposed to introduce John Kerry. With her speech devoted to the two men, there was little time for Hillary to speak of anything else, including herself.

Although President Clinton's speech was the night's big prime time attraction, Gore's was in many ways more eagerly anticipated. Would delegates see the sleepy Al that at least some Democrats blame for his Electoral College defeat in 2000? Or would the country see the man Matt Drudge calls "Al Roar," the fiery speaker who has gone after the Bush administration with a passion he never showed four years ago?

He was none of the above. There were no fist-thumping condemnations. No "how dare they"s. No roll-calls for resignations of Bush administration officials. Instead of raw emotion and anger, the sentiment came wrapped in a tasteful package, replete with jokes about Gore's painful loss to George W. Bush.

"You know the old saying, you win some, you lose some. And then there's that little-known third category. I didn't come here tonight to talk about the past. After all, I don't want you to think I lie awake at night counting and recounting sheep. I prefer to focus on the future because I know from my own experience that America is a land of opportunity, where every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote."

Gore was jocular at times, but he wasn't "sedate or even sedated," as Fox's Chris Wallace warned viewers he might be. In a bid to keep peace in the party -- to placate the Kucinich delegates littered through the hall, to prove to the African-Americans from Florida that their disenfranchisement is still remembered -- Gore awoke from his happy-talk slumber a few times to make sharp points about the stakes of the coming election. "Take it from me," he said, "every vote counts. Let's make sure not only that the Supreme Court does not pick the next president, but also that this president is not the one who picks the next Supreme Court."

Gore's case against a second Bush administration was less a sermon to the choir of delegates assembled before him than a reaching out to the television audience who may have caught his speech on cable. "I sincerely ask those watching at home who supported President Bush four years ago: Did you really get what you expected from the candidate you voted for? Is our country more united today? Or more divided?"

"Has the promise of compassionate conservatism been fulfilled? Or do those words ring hollow? For that matter, are the economic polices really conservative at all? Did you expect, for example, the largest deficits in history? One after another? And the loss of more than a million jobs?"

On Iraq, Gore aimed his focus not on the MoveOn crowd but on those swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida, the ones who might have supported the war initially -- like, say, a certain presidential candidate -- but have since come to question it. "Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war, isn't it now obvious that the way the war has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?" Gore asked. "Wouldn't we be better off with a new president who hasn't burned his bridges to our allies, and who could rebuild respect for America in the world? Wouldn't we be safer with a president who didn't insist on confusing al-Qaida with Iraq? Doesn't that divert too much of our attention away from the principal danger?"

Gore was walking the line, the same line that Democrats tried -- with varying degrees of success -- to walk all day. "They're trying to appeal to that middle ground in America that's still undecided, and you've got to measure your tone in a way that's more appealing," former vice president Walter Mondale told Salon just after Gore spoke. "People are getting tired of the negative. They've heard that, they know about it. You know, they say 'the past is prologue,' and that's a good message to deliver. But it's an art form, not an axe."

Mondale's old boss Jimmy Carter practiced the art in his address, getting in a dig at Bush's National Guard duty: At least Kerry "showed up when assigned to duty" as a naval officer, said Carter, who was also a naval officer. A Kerry win would also "restore the judgment and maturity to our government that nowadays is sorely lacking." Under Bush, "the United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends, and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of 'preemptive' war," Carter said. "In the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead."

At various points in the day Monday, Democratic anger bubbled over the lid the Kerry camp tried to clamp down on it. As the Black Caucus meeting Monday morning, the Rev. Al Sharpton fired up delegates with a sharp rebuff to George W. Bush's last-minute effort to win over black voters. Sharpton called Bush's speech before the Urban League "insulting," and he railed against the suggestion that African-Americans "get over" their disenfranchisement in Florida four years ago. As hundreds of black delegates leapt to their feet in noisy applause, Sharpton inventoried the suffering African-Americans endured to win the vote and the wrongs the Republican Party has visited upon them.

An hour later, a flag-waving Veterans Caucus session evolved from an all-inclusive patriotic affair into an angry indictment of the current commander in chief. James Carville shouted into an over-modulated microphone, and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland -- who Carville said will go down in history as one of the most "wronged" Americans ever -- said that Bush had put the country through "hell."

Veterans were on their feet, some shouting, some crying. "That was positive emotion," Cleland told Salon on the convention floor a few hours later. "It was real and it was authentic, and John Kerry understands that. You had powerful emotion in that room because you finally have someone [in Kerry] who listens to veterans and understands them, and they appreciate that."

Cleland is everywhere on the Kerry campaign trail and connects to voters emotionally in a way that can elude Kerry -- sometimes by simply being there in his wheelchair, sometimes speaking eloquently about this "brother." Cleland said that the campaign has not tried to quiet him. "I can scream when I want to," he said. "I scream my fair share."

And indeed, it's not at all clear that the Democrats really want to avoid a little emotion in Boston. Rank-and-file Democrats are angry -- about the war, about the economy, about Florida 2000. With "Fahrenheit 9/11," Democrats have begun feeling the frustrations of Florida all over again, and they've experienced the energy -- but not the catharsis -- that comes from venting. An all-positive, all-the-time convention would, for many, be anticlimactic.

"We want to come off with a positive message and I think the Kerry campaign is right with that, especially when the Bush-Cheney campaign has been so negative," Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek told Salon just before his convention speech Monday night. "We want to let America know that we have positive things to talk about. But the reality is that we're in a war that was based on lies. More than 950 Americans have lost their lives. And there's some people here who want to hear some red meat, and I think they're going to hear it before the week is out."

When Meek addressed the crowd Monday night, he gave them a taste of it. The disenfranchisement of thousands of voters won't happen again, Meek said. "This year, we will be prepared for anything they throw at us."

In the seats of the Florida delegation, Florida State Rep. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville agreed that Democrats needed to closely guard the votes. In her precinct alone, she said, 27,000 votes were "stolen," and she fears things haven't changed enough, especially with recent news that black voters were primed to be purged yet again until a state judge stepped in. "There is not a lot of faith in the system," she said. "We have to watch them, from the start of early voting in the places that do it to after the polls close, we're going to have to monitor everything. It really puts a tremendous burden on us to pay attention to detail and make sure we're not robbed. We have to be up to the task ... The best vengeance is victory," Gibson said.

Dennis Kucinich echoed those words. The Ohio congressman watched part of Gore's speech while sitting on the concrete steps near the Idaho delegation. Asked whether he wished Gore were taking a more aggressive tone, he said: "We need to win." Dean, racing through the bowels of the Fleet Center between TV interviews, said his supporters understood that this is a time for coming together behind Kerry, even if they'd be more enthusiastic if the party's leaders were making their case more vociferously.

Is there a risk that Dean's supporters will lose their momentum if the convention remains calm? "Not a chance," Dean said. "They're on board."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

MORE FROM Geraldine Sealey

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Howard Dean